Unpicking the past masters: what makes a 'historical novel'?

The genre is 'not exactly jammed with greatness', according to one critic. Not true, there are tales that are truly great

James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard and a regular reviewer in the New Yorker, is the critic I most admire, and I disagree with him on a great many points. We did, however, concur in our high estimation of Hilary Mantel's novels about Thomas Cromwell; even though the opening paragraph of his review seemed to be designed to make me bristle. Wood writes: "Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness." My initial response was that the statement was pure phooey. As usual with Wood's work, my second response was that something needed unpicking here, that there were ideas curled inside the provocation. What exactly is the "historical novel"?

Of course, there are historical novels that are truly great: from Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian right up to AL Kennedy's Day, David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. There are, equally, formulaic, cliche-ridden and preposterous historical novels. But is this a difference of genre or talent?

The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction defines historical novels as those set at least 60 years in the past, a neat nod to the subtitle of Scott's Waverley, 'Tis Sixty Years Since. It's also moderately problematic: George Eliot's Middlemarch, for example, is set only 40 years in the past. (Then again, Middlemarch isn't normally described as a historical novel.) My little list of historical novels also shows that the form seemed to be in abeyance during the modernist period: Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Flush are both technically historical novels, but they're "more than" historical novels.

I think that "historical novel" is rather too broad a term to encompass, say, Ellis Peters's A Morbid Taste for Bones and Antony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun. It's instructive to compare Scott with his most successful heir, Alexandre Dumas. Dumas inveigles his characters into historical situations, usually with them just failing to change the course of history (the musketeers kidnap Charles I's executioner, only for Milady's son, Mordaunt, to do the deed). Scott, as the Marxist scholar György Lukács understood, aligns his protagonists to the tide of history: Edward Waverley may dally with Jacobitism, but ends up a loyal Hanoverian. Fiction set in the past – in any past – is profoundly predestined: when Scott wrote one very weird novel, Redgauntlet, about a fictitious historical event – Charles Edward Stuart attempting to rally a final Jacobite putsch in the 1780s – he systematically showed how the whole thing could never have happened. Incidentally, Redgauntlet would be ineligible for the Walter Scott prize.

Although modernism may have been sceptical about historical fiction, postmodernism adored it, since it was about stories. It also looked at metahistorical novels, novels that turned on how history was written. John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, for example, is an homage to 18th-century novels about an 18th-century poet. AS Byatt's The Children's Book is a devastating engagement with how stories overwrite family narratives. John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead exactly dissects how historical legends arise.

There is also the detail of detail. Scott's penchant for detail was satirised in his lifetime: William Maginn, who wrote a lovely and odd novel describing present day events as though they were historical events, skewered the use of food and clothes as an easy way to evoke the past. Mantel herself is very cautious with detail – an almond here, a specific silk there – while Edward Bulwer-Lytton or Rafael Sabatini swell the periwig and collops quotient. In some respects, writers wedded to the idea of contemporary relevance are as guilty in this respect: Blahniks and iPads both date as well. Robert Louis Stevenson used the word "tusherie" to describe that particular form of detail-rich, psychology-light fiction, and his own oeuvre encompasses both the high literary (The Master of Ballantrae) and tusherie (The Black Arrow). There is an element of truth in Thomas Carlyle's claim that Scott wrote his characters from the clothes in, not the heart out.

The question of detail is part of a wider question about the form, encapsulated in the famous opening of LP Hartley's The Go-Between: "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". Wood praises Mantel for her "cunning universalism", a slicker version of CS Lewis's unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past's fundamental difference: William Golding's The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace.

It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the "literary fiction" genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood's frustration is with "historical romance" in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.

Contributor

Stuart Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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